My childhood and growing-up years were haunted by fire – a thing which I have been reminded about, on reading the horrific accounts of the fast-moving fire that swept a resort town on the eastern shore of Greece’s Attic Peninsula earlier this week, and on reading about the massive Carr Fire just now threatening whole tracts of northern California. I grew up in Southern California, living there until I enlisted after college, went away and never really returned for more than a couple of weeks. (Less a single year to the day at Mather AFB in 1981-82.) My parents loved living in the hills, preferably at the end of a dirt road; if not out of sight of a neighbor’s fireplace sending up a little plume of smoke – then on at least half an acre and that far distant from their rooftop. Dad was a research biologist. He gave the most wonderful nature walks imaginable, and would have been – as he once confessed, being happy as a desert rat, living in a hut in the Mojave. This meant that we were usually living in, or within sight of California chaparral-covered hills – hills which nature has designed expressly for the purposes of burning over, every twenty or thirty years.
There is no escaping that unadorned fact. Fire governs the wilderness. Certain of the native plant seeds do not even properly germinate until heated to so-many degrees. The plants themselves are resinous and burn readily, when the hot wind desert wind blows. This I knew, early on. The standing old-growth forests, and even the newer pine-woods other parts of California and the west – they are governed, bound, ruthlessly maintained by cycles of naturally-occurring fire and renewal. Fire thins the new seedlings, eliminates disease-weakened trees, clears away the mast and muddle – the broom that ruthlessly sweeps away, and renews. This my father taught us. A lesson which certain environmental groups seem to refuse, with the energy of a small child refusing a spoonful of delicious creamed spinach. No! Don’t cut down those pine-bark-infested pine trees! No, don’t clear-cut that brush! It’s icky interference with nature! And don’t do controlled burns, which endanger the spotted lizard-owl something! So the burnable load increases, increases and increases again, and when it finally all goes up, it burns so hot that the earth turns clean and barren, like a kiln transforming clay into pottery. Nature deferred will extract her penalty.
Knowledge of fire hazard is something which we lived with for many years. There were precautions to take, of course. Care with open flame of any sort, care with clearing away brush and plantings from buildings, care with even building to start with – and ceaseless vigilance in fire season, when the devil wind blew in summer and fall, and the brush turned so tinder-dry that anything would set it aflame; a cigarette carelessly discarded, a steel bulldozer-blade striking a flint rock, a shorted-out string of Christmas lights. A campfire getting out of hand. A stupid neighbor boy monkeying around with a firework. That last one set half an acre above our house in Tujunga on fire, even though we called the fire department as soon as we heard the firework sizzle. Of course, we – and a good few neighbors – were on hand, fighting it with wet towels, buckets, garden hoses, even before the city fire crew appeared. Get the fire small, before it grows, because – if it grows, half a hillside can disappear in a tornado of flame.
I saw one of those, once. Through Dad’s binoculars – from the hilltop above the house where I lived as a teenager. About the whole of the Angeles National Forest burned that year, it seemed like. It came over the crest of the mountain range above Sunland Tujunga, in a line of fire as far as we could see across the horizon. The fire burned down the hillside, and in one steep canyon, it struck the right combination of conditions to turn into a fire tornado. That’s what it looks like – a tornado of flame. Through the binoculars, I saw the wind of the fire tornado sucking stuff into it, as it moved downhill. I couldn’t hear the noise that it made; this was at a distance. But I knew the sound. Some of the news reports have made mention; that a fast-moving wildfire makes a particular heavy roaring sound. It does, and it’s terrifying to hear. And to see that the fire is moving faster through the brush, or pines, or whatever – faster than someone can run. And the smoke is horrific. It pours off the fire like water in full-blast from a fire hydrant, a pale orange-beige color. In a short while from a fire starting, it mounts up into the sky like a thundercloud – like a thundercloud, swiftly blotting out the sun, and turning the sky a nasty color … sometimes so thick and dark that automatic streetlights switch on in mid-afternoon. And wisps of ashes begin floating down, blowing like dry snowflakes, wherever the hot wind takes them.
The Carr fire in Northern California’s Shasta and Trinity Counties has burned nearly 90,000 acres, and as of Sunday is reported to be only 5% contained. Likely even more will be burned, even as other fires scorch the earth around Los Angeles, and northern San Diego county. The fire that flashed through the holiday resort town of Mati, on the eastward side of Greeces’ Attic peninsula seems to have been extinguished. When I was stationed at Hellenikon AB in the early 1980s, I rather preferred the beaches on that side – they were cleaner, less crowded than the ranges of beach on the Athens to Sounion side. I don’t believe I ever was in Mati – although we did visit Marathon at least once. I favored the drive to Vauvrona for the beach there – and ancient Brauron, which boasted an ancient temple dedicated to Artemis – and Porto Rafti, which was the location of a seafood restaurant favored by my next-door neighbors in Athens. They served up fresh-caught fish, roast over an open grill every day, garnished with nothing more than salt and lemon, and a side of French-friend potatoes, and when they were out of fish, the place closed for the day. Both Greece and Southern California had the same kind of vegetation clothing the hills – low-growing dark-green chamisa; sages and wild salvias, gnarled scrub pines. In a dry summer, with a furnace-hot wind blowing, of course it will all catch fire and burn, flashing over the tops of trees and brush faster than a person can run.
I have never gotten over the habit of looking around when I hear a fire engine – looking for a plume of beige-grey smoke rising into the sky, even though it has been going on twenty-five years since I lived in fire country.